How to Use the Prefixes “Dis” and “Un” Correctly

We use words that start with prefixes “dis” and “un” every day. For instance, you might tell someone you’re disappointed or unsure, about a particular person or event etc. But, how do these letters change what the word means?

To start, the prefixes “dis” and “un” have slight differences. “Dis” means “not” or “the opposite of,” and occasionally attaches to verbs to indicate undoing an action. In contrast, “un” can also mean “not,” depending on the base word, but it can also signify “deprived of” or “release.”

Here, we’ll dive into the differences between these two common prefixes and provide examples of how to use them in your writing.

When should you use the prefix dis?

The prefix “dis” is added to base words at the start, indicating “not” or “opposite of.” It can also attach to verbs to portray reversing an action. For instance, the word “disappear” includes the prefix “dis” and the verb “appear,” yielding the literal meaning “to not appear” or “to perform the opposite of appearing.”

Words with dis are known as negatives, which are words that show that something is untrue, nullified, or not happening.

At times, using the prefix “dis” might appear suitable, but that won’t necessarily hold in all situations. Consider “disorganized” and “unorganized”: While both words convey a lack of organization, they carry distinct implications.

Describing someone as disorganized not only signifies their lack of organization but also implies a potential messiness. On the other hand, the term unorganized simply indicates a deficiency in organization.

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When should you use the prefix un?

Changing the base word by adding the negative prefix “un” alters its meaning to “not,” “deprived of,” or “released from.”

Similar to words with the prefix “dis,” words with “un” are also referred to as negatives—additions that indicate something is false, invalidated, or not occurring.

Although both “un” and “dis” convey the idea of “not,” they are not always interchangeable. For example, “uninterested” signifies a lack of interest in delving further into a topic, while “disinterested” implies impartiality or lack of bias.

Someone who lacks interest in sports rarely watches games, whereas an individual who lacks bias towards sports may watch matches without favoring any team.

However, many individuals still use these terms interchangeably, and technically, such usage is not incorrect.

The prefix “un” is also combined with words having suffixes, which are letters or groups of letters attached to a base word’s end to form a new word. This creates an adjective.

For instance, consider the word “unstabilized”: it combines the prefix “un” (indicating “not”), the verb “stabilize” (meaning “to make steady”), and the suffix “-ed.” The resulting adjective implies “not steady” or “not stable.”

Examples of using dis and un in a sentence

Here are four examples of how to use the prefix dis in a sentence:

  • My brother’s room was so disorganized it was hard to find the floor.
  • My research partner took a disinterested approach to the experiment.
  • The surgery left him in some discomfort, which lasted for two days.
  • Antonio leaves negative restaurant reviews when he’s dissatisfied with the service.

Here are four examples of how to use the prefix un in a sentence:

  • Kate didn’t realize how unhappy she was until she left her partner.
  • The crack left the merry-go-round very unstable.
  • It took the barber ten minutes to untangle her client’s hair.
  • These shoes are so tight that I can’t wait to untie the laces.

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